Report: Police Lineup Protocol Can Be Improved

Left to right: Officer Mario Martinez, Sergeant R. Richman and officer L. Lyons on duty.
Left to right: Officer Mario Martinez, Sergeant R. Richman and officer L. Lyons on duty.

The use of so-called double-blind, sequential lineups in criminal cases minimizes mistaken eyewitness identifications, according to a report released today by the American Judicature Society.

Eyewitness misidentifications have accounted for 75 percent of the 273 wrongful convictions overturned through DNA evidence in the U.S. The rate is slightly higher in Texas, where eyewitness misidentifications have accounted for 80 percent of the 44 wrongful convictions that were later overturned, according to Nick Vilbas at the Innocence Project of Texas.

“Double-blind” lineups must be conducted by an officer without knowledge of the suspect's identity. In "sequential" lineups, photographs of suspects are shown one at a time to the witness, who is allowed to make a decision after viewing each photograph, rather than after seeing all the photos at once.

The new study — based on real cases from the Austin Police Department and several other departments from the across the country — found that witnesses identified 6 percent fewer non-suspects, or "fillers," in sequential lineups than they did in simultaneous lineups. The findings also reject the claims of a 2006 study that found that witnesses were less likely overall to pick out a suspect in sequential lineups. Key to the study's comprehensiveness was the use of specially designed software and laptop computers in all stages of the experiment.

Barry Scheck, co-Founder of the Innocence Project, believes that improved lineup protocol is only part of what is needed to improve the U.S. criminal justice system. “There has to be uniformity moving forward with what we know is best,” Scheck said in a conference call with reporters.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, whose department makes use of both sequential and simultaneous lineups, called the study a step toward improving lineup protocol in police departments across Texas.

“Our ever-evolving DNA technology has always been our primary tool," Lehmberg said. "But we also know that we need to help witnesses make identifications that are untainted."

Acevedo was hesitant to advocate for singular and immediate adoption of sequential lineup procedures. He said police departments would likely face hurdles in getting officers to accept changes to long-practiced protocol. But he called the results of the study encouraging. “We should never let the fear of the unknown stop us as a profession from making progress," he said.

Acevedo did, however, agree that double-blind lineups, whether sequential or simultaneous, are the best practice.

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